If Asian-Americans are hardly visible in pop culture, rarely considered for “normal” roles, and whitewashed out of the movies by the likes of Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone, and Scarlett Johansson, Asian-American culture is even harder to find onscreen. There’s one version of it on The Mindy Project, now the grande dame of current Asian-American TV at just four years old, that mostly consists of Mindy Lahiri’s “coconut” identity. (“Brown on the outside, white on the inside,” tuts her only Indian-American suitor to date.) Aziz Ansari dramatized another variant of Asian-American culture on Master of None, with full episodes devoted to immigration and Indian-American representation in Hollywood. But Ansari’s cast, too, is pan-racial, and Master of None’s story lines are, like The Mindy Project’s, more concerned with romance than with identity (as they have every right to be).
Upon its premiere, Fresh Off the Boat was heralded for being the first Asian-American family sitcom since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl (oof, that title) was canceled 20 years ago. But as this ABC sitcom’s uneven but frequently fantastic second season has demonstrated, its importance lies not only in its representation, but also its fully realized depiction of an Asian-American culture in the process of coming to fruition, one milestone, holiday, and decision at a time. And though one series, loosely based on a single dude’s autobiography, could never represent the vast range of Asian America, the show’s all-Asian cast means that it can showcase the dissent and diversity within the Chinese-Taiwanese-American culture that the Huangs create for themselves.
Without speaking for all Asian-Americans, I’d guess few would claim creator Nahnatchka Khan’s series to be authentic to their lives. Fresh Off the Boat is certainly culturally recognizable in many of its details. This week’s season finale, for example, showed dad Louis (Randall Park) sporting a (anachronistic) sheet mask, made use of the unplayed piano in the Huangs’ living room (the bane of many an Asian-American mother), and featured a “Chinese polite fight” between Louis and his brother (Ken Jeong), in which the two men battled to be seen as the more magnanimous sibling. But Fresh Off the Boat is also a family sitcom, and so is no more representative of Asian America than Fuller House is of white America.
In contrast to the Tanners, the Huangs have made themselves essential by thriving within the constraints of that genre. After parting ways with the real-life Eddie Huang, the disgruntled chef-author who’d unrealistically pushed for the show to tackle domestic abuse, Fresh Off the Boat found its footing by following the tonal path of Khan’s earlier Don’t Trust the B---- in Apartment 23, the sly, observant Krysten Ritter vehicle that clearly sided with the outsiders without ever losing its sense of fun. Constance Wu’s breakout character, Jessica, the family’s tiger mom, has become the show’s dominant voice — and she’s got a delightfully dismissive opinion about most American culture. Flowers on her birthday: “Why do I want to watch money wilt?” Miss Piggy: “Pigs don’t date. Pigs feed a crowd at a reasonable price.” Halloween: “Begging for candy in a disguise to hide your shame? No, thank you.”
Fresh Off the Boat balances Jessica’s tart tongue with plenty of the family-sitcom genre’s sweet sentimentality and reliance on heartfelt parent-child talks. And if those elements come off as anodyne in a predominantly white show like Modern Family, they feel refreshingly liberal here. The culture that the Huangs fabricate for themselves is feminist, gay-friendly, and non-racist — a utopian, progressive vision of an Asian-American milieu that most definitely exists in real life but has never been seen on TV.
That vision has needed to make a few concessions to irreality. The episode in which Louis decides he wants a daughter — while not implausible — runs counter to everything I know about the East Asian preference for boys. The marriage between Jessica and Louis is exponentially more equitable than the actual Huangs’ abusive union, and in the ’90s, when two-thirds of Americans opposed gay marriage, it seems unlikely that Jessica’s elderly mother would have befriended her daughter’s homosexual friend and his partner.
But the starkest dissonance is in the immigrant family’s embrace of African-American cultural influences. The early ’90s were rife with Asian-black tension, culminating with the L.A. riots, which started as a protest against the LAPD’s violent racism but swallowed up many Korean businesses, too. Given this historical background, it’s not surprising that Eddie (Hudson Yang) is called a “chink” by an African-American classmate in the show’s pilot — an incident lifted from Huang’s memoir.
But Eddie soon befriends his would-be bully, and he’s defined as a character by his love of hip-hop. (It’s such an open adoration that Jessica buys several t-shirts for her son — “the kind you like, with black men on them” — unaware that LeVar Burton isn’t exactly Eddie’s idea of an OG.) Inconsistently amusing, the show’s callbacks to ’90s hip-hop mostly exist to point at the cultural and generational gap between mother and son, but Jessica isn’t immune to the appeal of African-American contributions to American culture, either. Her favorite movies? “Riveting Denzel dramas about legal briefs.”
Perhaps the real-life Huang would call his fictional family a whitewashing of a different sort, as he seemed to want a warts-and-all look at Asian America. But just as there’s a need for projects that reflect the unvarnished truth, there’s also a need for shows like Fresh Off the Boat that inspire us with the gauzy hopefulness of what could be. After all, we need pictures of heaven as much as we need pictures of earth — otherwise, how will we know what to aspire to?
Fresh Off the Boat is as capable as any other show of pointed critique, as this season’s treatise on the perils of diminished representation demonstrated. When Louis lands a brief gig on a local early-morning talk show doing character impressions, Jessica implores her husband to be serious ... but also relaxed and intelligent, but not boring, and pleasant and smart and tall — because when one shot is all you get to represent millions of people you’ve never met, you need to be superhuman, i.e., something that doesn’t exist and certainly not yourself. On Fresh Off the Boat, the Huangs — knowing that none of them have to carry that burden of representation alone — can be themselves.